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I'm heather. I've been invited to be a guest for the Physics.SE Ask Me Anything (AMA) taking place in the h-bar on Monday, February 20th, at 10pm UTC (for USA users that's 2:00 Pacific, 3:00 Mountain, 4:00 Central, and 5:00 Eastern). I'm excited to talk about just about anything, from teaching yourself physics, middle school (more about that in a moment), coding, math, and just about anything else you want to talk about.

Post questions you want answered below

The AMA will be very informal, with questions posted here to help give me an idea of what people want to talk about, but the chat session itself will be a bit of a free for all. DanielSank has kindly offered to help moderate the session. Please post questions you'd like answered as responses to this meta post. See for examples the questions posted for Secret, DanielSank, yuggib, or Slereah.

Education/About Me

As some of you may already know, I'm in middle school. So, in terms of physics education, I'm mostly self-taught, though my dad's helped me along the way, as have the excellent people (and AI's - ACuriousMind, I'm looking at you) here at Physics.SE. A special shout out to Daniel Sank, who invited me to the Google Martinis Lab (!) which I visited last November. I live in America, and have always gone to public schools. I'm currently in 8th grade. I also love Physics.SE (and stack exchange in general) - I've earned 4.5k rep in approximately 7 months (though I've slowed down in the amount of rep I've earned...school's been busy recently) and also gotten on the close vote review queue leaderboard.

Technical Interests

  • Physics
    • Quantum computing is an especial interest of mine, and is what helped me really kick start teaching myself a lot of different things, such as linear algebra and some of the basics of quantum computing.
    • Nuclear fusion and plasma physics I couldn't really do anything at all practical (problems/reading books) but it's a sub field of physics I try to read about and am interested in.
    • Particle physics is super cool! What's not to love about smashing things together at high energies?
    • General relativity I've just started reading a bit about.
    • I'm trying to start teaching myself the basics as well, as before I really got serious about teaching myself stuff this past summer (which was a little before I found out about stack exchange) I'd only really read pop-sci books. Now I'm trying to learn things the right way.
  • Computer science/programming
    • Python is my favorite language. I'm trying to get better at programming, and I've worked through some of the Euler problems. Currently, I'm trying to write a program that simulates an ideal (and hopefully eventually a non-ideal) quantum computer.
    • Complexity classes interest me, though I don't know a ton about them.
    • Finally, computer science where it intersects with quantum computing (see above).
  • Mathematics
    • Currently I'm trying to learn multivariable calculus and set theory, though I've got a bunch of topics I want to learn.
    • I have taught myself the basics of linear algebra and single-variable calculus, but I'm afraid I couldn't talk much about them (though I could put in a plug for 3Blue1Brown's linear algebra videos which are absolutely amazing).
    • I love, love, love trying proofs and puzzling about big problems that are way beyond me. I've read a bit about the Collatz Conjecture, for instance, and have tried to mess with it a bit. Trying problems like these (even if I fail miserably, as I inevitably do) always makes me feel like a real mathematician/physicist/what-have-you, which is cool. =)

Non-technical interests

  • How to best teach yourself stuff.
  • The best textbooks/videos/websites. I have a few recommendations, though I doubt I'm very qualified to give them. =)
  • I play the guitar, and am absolutely terrible at it, but it's a great instrument. I have an acoustic and electric guitar.
  • Rock climbing, which is an absolutely wonderful sport.
  • How to survive middle school - joking (sort of, anyway).

I'm very honored to be invited to take part in this, and it should be fun! Like I said, I'd be glad to answer any questions you might have (if I can answer them, that is).

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    $\begingroup$ hi thx so much for agreeing :) ... we went 6mo or longer in physics chat without seeing any females & am happy to see gender balance on this site/ chat where there is major gender imbalance typically. maybe you might comment on this at some point. do you ever get "flack" for this on this site or elsewhere? do you know other girls interested in similar topics? is the culture here welcoming to women? any suggestions? thx much for mentioning collatz & think your efforts are far from "failure"! & encourage further Physics Chat $\endgroup$ – vzn Feb 11 '17 at 18:10
  • $\begingroup$ @vzn I'd suggest posting an answer with your gender comment. $\endgroup$ – heather Feb 11 '17 at 19:05
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    $\begingroup$ Careful with the Collatz conjecture. It can drive you mad. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Feb 11 '17 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ Um...sorry, but why the downvotes? $\endgroup$ – heather Feb 13 '17 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ The down votes are probably from folks who don't want this kind of thing in the meta. Don't you love an obvious statement? $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Feb 15 '17 at 8:20
  • $\begingroup$ Wonderful but dangerous. $\endgroup$ – Count Iblis Feb 19 '17 at 2:59
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    $\begingroup$ I put a chat event on the schedule for this. $\endgroup$ – David Z Feb 20 '17 at 5:03
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    $\begingroup$ You inspire me. :) $\endgroup$ – user79290 Feb 20 '17 at 9:29
  • $\begingroup$ I wasn't able to attend you AMA , can you please link the transcript ,I want to read it. $\endgroup$ – Fawad Feb 22 '17 at 12:03

12 Answers 12

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Which approach do you prefer for learning physics?:

(all the namings of the methods below by myself:)

A) lean or bulky?

  • lean: Read as little as possible (only the minimums required: introductory X, principles of X, reading only very elementary linear algebra before starting QM,...), and maximize time spent on problem-solving to gain more insight.
  • bulky: Maximize reading (Comprehensive X, multiple textbooks on X, read a serious textbook on linear algebra before starting QM,...), and then maybe solve the end-of-chapter problems sporadically just to make sure you've understood everything.

B) Top-down or bottom-up?

  • Top-down: Reading (mostly) qualitative material on Quantum Mechanics, Cosmology, Quantum Computing, etc. from various sources like Wikipedia articles, lecture notes, SE website,... and then delve into the math, details and prerequisites when necessary; and build your way through the subject and increase your resolution of the picture.

  • bottom-up: Similar to a standard physics curriculum: Start from reading Marion's (or Kleppner's) Classical Mechanics and Griffith's Electrodynamics and working through the required chapters thoroughly and solving all the problems; consult other sources only when necessary. Then start the next subject like quantum mechanics, maybe relativity, and continue expanding your physics knowledge this way.

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    $\begingroup$ Good question +1. We both asked nearly the same question with some variation ;). $\endgroup$ – 2017 Feb 12 '17 at 10:18
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Do your parents know that you are internet-friends with people from all around the world, most of which are at least twice your age? What do they think about that?

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    $\begingroup$ Also as he is interested in both physics and programming,ask him John Rennie or John skeet :D $\endgroup$ – Fawad Feb 11 '17 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Fawad yes, that one is good too, but the answer is quite obvious ;-) (BTW, Heather is a she) $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 11 '17 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Fawad, clearly John Rennie =) $\endgroup$ – heather Feb 11 '17 at 15:25
  • $\begingroup$ @Fawad and I think John Rennie does both serious physics and programming! $\endgroup$ – Mo_ Feb 11 '17 at 16:52
  • $\begingroup$ I like the 2nd and the 3rd question :) However, I don't see the point of asking 1 and 4 in an AMA event. I believe that AMA is meant to be useful for future viewers and visitors. Anyway +1 for the other 2. $\endgroup$ – 2017 Feb 12 '17 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ I personally think 1 is quite relevant as it will explore the learning dynamics between the younger generation and the older generation, which is quite common in cyberspace nowadays. $\endgroup$ – Secret Feb 12 '17 at 13:15
  • $\begingroup$ @anonymous to be honest, 4 was kind of a joke question. I don't expect heather to actually answer that one. $\endgroup$ – AccidentalFourierTransform Feb 12 '17 at 16:26
  • $\begingroup$ Would you mind putting the other questions back in (especially 2-3)? I thought they were good questions. $\endgroup$ – heather Feb 15 '17 at 21:47
  • $\begingroup$ @heather Those questions are in the other answers of AFT to the post. Scroll down. $\endgroup$ – 2017 Feb 16 '17 at 12:27
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Ok, to start with, a couple of rather general questions (some of these are more like broad headings than a question, you can decide how and what to answer those live on the AMA in some form later as those broad headings will pop up in some form anyway) :

  • Tell us more about your experience in Google Martinis Lab
  • What's your strategy in self teaching, especially for highly technical topics?
  • Rock climbing experience
  • What are the important algorithms and procedures one need to know in quantum computing?
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  • $\begingroup$ That's a lot of stuff under one umbrella. Why not split it up? $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Feb 11 '17 at 20:06
  • $\begingroup$ I'm down-voting this because it should be split up into multiple posts, one for each specific question. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Feb 15 '17 at 8:21
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How are your daily hours split between school/homework, family activities, exercise/sports, and pursuit of personal projects (learning non-school topics, programming, etc.)? Are you satisfied with the distribution? If not, how would you like to change it?

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  • What made you interested in Quantum Computing at such an early age ?

  • I've seen you jump from one topic to another in very short spans of time (especially in Physics e.g. GR,QM,Quantum Computing and Mathematics e.g. Calculus). Are you really able to master them in short spans or you just go through the basics and leave the intricacies for the future? Do you feel your approach to learning the topics is the most suitable one for you? Why?

  • Tell us a few real world problems (e.g. global warming, diseases, pollution) that you dream of being able to solve in the future for a better world.

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  • $\begingroup$ I think number three is a bit political and not relevant to the AMA $\endgroup$ – Kenshin Feb 15 '17 at 8:13
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    $\begingroup$ @Kenshin I find your comment ridiculous after realizing that you are the same person who wrote this answer (meta.physics.stackexchange.com/a/9620/102705) $\endgroup$ – 2017 Feb 16 '17 at 8:21
  • $\begingroup$ Since anonymous' link is dead, the answer was asking whether or not I approved of the immigration ban. $\endgroup$ – heather Feb 18 '17 at 15:32
  • $\begingroup$ @heather Users with greater than 10k rep can still see deleted answers I guess. :) $\endgroup$ – 2017 Feb 18 '17 at 16:29
  • $\begingroup$ @anonymous, oh, true, didn't think of that. $\endgroup$ – heather Feb 18 '17 at 16:32
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  • Have you ever had the experience of solving a real physics problem? by real I mean more than the end-of-chapter textbook problems: analyzing a real-world phenomenon or observation like a physicist (building a mathematical model, doing the required analysis, interpreting the results, etc.). If yes, tell us about your experience.

(And my emphasis here is on the "like a physicist" part. The problem can be any problem that lends itself to a physics-like analysis.)

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You are more mature that most people my age (and certainly more mature than I!). That is not something very common, so I'd like to ask: what do you think is the reason for that? is it because your parents/some other role model? is it because you've read lots of books? or something else?

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Do you experience any correlation between time spent rock climbing and your capacity for learning? I find that exercise strongly influences the flexibility of my mind and my ability to retain information. I'm interested in whether someone considerably younger has the same experience.

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What's the best physics book out there, a must-read for any physicist?

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My question is basically: what circumstances led you here?

How did you learn what physics is? What do your parents do for their living and what's the highest-level of their education? Do your parents encourage or reward you to learn physics on your own? Do they help you when you are stuck, and taught you how to look for answers when they don't have answers? What have your parents taught you academically? Did you see algebra for the first time in school? Do you have a tutor? Are you ahead of your math classes in school?

If you wanted another person your age to learn (and have interest in) physics as you do, what would you teach them?

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    $\begingroup$ So many questions in one post. It's better to ask them separately so that people can vote on what they want to hear! $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Feb 20 '17 at 18:54
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I note your interest in quantum computing. I work in IT, and I've taken careful note of the way digital electronic or "ordinary" computing has advanced in leaps and bounds over recent decades. Advances in computing has changed our lives, for the better. In that time I've seen a lot of very positive articles about quantum computing. It's been around for about thirty-five years now. And yet it has delivered nothing. To be blunt, it has delivered diddly-squat. So my question to you is this:

How long will you retain your interest in quantum computing if it delivers diddly-squat?

And for a bonus question:

How long do you think Google will retain their interest in quantum computing if it delivers diddly-squat?

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  • $\begingroup$ see also Dyakonov "prospects for QM computing, extremely doubtful" arxiv.org/abs/1401.3629 $\endgroup$ – vzn Feb 16 '17 at 21:05
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    $\begingroup$ In the last ten years I've seen superconducting qubit coherence increase by about a factor of ten thousand in the best qubits. At the same, in qubits where the coherence has improved by around 500X, 2-qubit entangling gates are at almost 0.1% error rates. Readout accuracy has gone from around zero to around 99%. We may not have delivered an economically useful product yet, but I see no reason to doubt the future so strongly. We may hit a wall, but we haven't yet. $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Feb 17 '17 at 17:39
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    $\begingroup$ So, John, I would like to know your opinion of what "diddly squat" means. Has particle physics, in your opinion, delivered more than diddly squat in the last 35 years? If so, it has been in the form of scientific knowledge and not in the form of anything economically useful. Can you explain why the scientific knowledge from quantum computing is worth "diddly squat" while that from particle physics is useful, or otherwise explain what economically useful product has come from particle physics in the last 35 years? $\endgroup$ – DanielSank Feb 17 '17 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ think there is some vague similarity between QM computing to the artificial fusion field which was full of unfulfilled promises for many years, legendarily always promsing a breakthru in 2 decades, and coincidentally Heather has expressed some interest in that area. even top experts in QM computing have expressed various degrees of skepticism on its ultimate viability as a scalable/ low noise computing platform etc. anyway Physics Chat is a place for that type of discussion/ debate but JD is currently blocked there. $\endgroup$ – vzn Feb 17 '17 at 19:01
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    $\begingroup$ @DanielSank It's not fair to compare high energy physics with quantum computing. The goal of the former is clearly pure science and fundamental research with probably (very) long-term technological implications, while the latter is aimed at providing better computing machines. QuantumComputing vs. other computing paradigms is similar to the situation in fusion research vs. solar/wind energy research: It's led to some other scientific advances on the way (advances in engineering and controlling quantum systems; understanding quantum systems) but not even nearly enough for its main purpose. $\endgroup$ – Mo_ Feb 18 '17 at 5:24
  • $\begingroup$ @DanielSank : Has particle physics, in your opinion, delivered more than diddly squat in the last 35 years? No. I think there's big problems in particle physics. Can you explain why the scientific knowledge from quantum computing is worth "diddly squat" while that from particle physics is useful, or otherwise explain what economically useful product has come from particle physics in the last 35 years? No. Sorry. $\endgroup$ – John Duffield Feb 18 '17 at 17:47
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Einstein or Bohr? Harvard or MIT? Michelle or Melania? Tesla or Edison? Ubuntu or Fedora? Heisenberg or Schrödinger? Dems or Repubs? Strings or loops? Socialism or Capitalism? Frequency or time? Trump or Hitler? David Z or Ron Maimon?

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    $\begingroup$ I really don't understand the value of such questions to potential visitors. These are just shallow binary opinion based questions and in my view holds no value. I don't know if this is a good fit for AMA. $\endgroup$ – 2017 Feb 12 '17 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ The language of this question is a little ironic or sarcastic, but this is definitely the most serious and richest question asked so far. (by the way, why care so much about the potential visitors?) $\endgroup$ – Mo_ Feb 12 '17 at 16:28
  • $\begingroup$ I care for the potential visitors because the number of viewers of this meta post will be much much much greater than the number of people who will participate in the live chat. SE was created to be a place having good questions and answers that will be helpful to the broader community. And probably this AMA event isn't only to quench personal curiosities (you could ask those questions in the chat room as well). It has a bigger purpose. $\endgroup$ – 2017 Feb 12 '17 at 16:54
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    $\begingroup$ " definitely the most serious and richest question asked so far". I don't see how. $\endgroup$ – 2017 Feb 12 '17 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ I feel you're focusing on those few items that are (probably) included for fun, and ignore the majority serious and informative ones....Isn't just the first entry interesting enough to get an upvote? $\endgroup$ – Mo_ Feb 12 '17 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ What do any of these "questions" mean? Who do I approve of more? $\endgroup$ – Kyle Kanos Feb 12 '17 at 17:40
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    $\begingroup$ @KyleKanos maybe; When not clear enough, links are provided to prevent any ambiguities. $\endgroup$ – Mo_ Feb 12 '17 at 17:55
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    $\begingroup$ No, some of these are the viewpoint of certain people (Einstein or Bohr? is really more asking my opinion on the state of quantum mechanics, strings or loops is asking my opinion on which current theory for QG is better, etc). I think some are certainly worth answering, and some are just fun. $\endgroup$ – heather Feb 12 '17 at 17:55

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